Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

From Anu Garg's "Word A Day" files: In heaven, the police are British, the chefs are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and everything is organized by the Swiss.
In hell, the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.

Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, is reported to have said, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."

Cryoburn is Lois McMaster Bujolds first Miles Vorkosigan novel in around 10 years, I believe, and those of us who are big fans of one of the few handicapped space heroes in existence are all a-twitter with glee.
Publisher's Weekly summarized the plot thus: "Only five days after arriving on Kibou-daini for a cryonics conference, interplanetary diplomat Miles Vorkosigan narrowly escapes kidnapping. Drugged, dazed, and alone, he is taken in by Jin Sato, whose mother was the leader of a cryonics reform movement until being declared mentally ill and involuntarily frozen. Now Jin lives in a building full of squatters running an illegal cryonics clinic. Under imperial orders to investigate the shady dealings of the cryo cartels, Miles connects the far-flung pieces and exposes a sneaky plot. Bujold introduces appealing characters to join familiar ones in exploring the ramifications of a planet-wide culture of postponing death, and her deft and absorbing writing easily corrals the complex plot and softens the blow of a tear-jerking conclusion."
Copyright © PWxyz, LLC

Though there were a lot more politics in this novel than I like, Bujold never let the plot lag with rants about any particular faction. She maintained the integrity of the characters throughout their trials and troubles, and Miles, as usual, comes out of this mess smelling like a rose. One of the things I admire most about Miles is his ability to think his way out of trouble, and view life like a situational chess match, where he's usually two moves ahead of his opponent. We get to see his clone-brother Mark in all his deal-making glory, too, though Miles comments that he wishes his brother would differentiate himself in some other way than being overweight. Personally, I found that remark a bit offensive, and I wanted to smack Miles in the head and say "Listen, Pookie, your clone brother has been through Hades and back, so at least allow him to be whatever size he chooses...let him make his life and his body his own." Yes, I know that calling someone of Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan "Pookie" would doubtless get me thrown in a Barrayar dungeon, but it would be worth it to see the look on his face. That's another thing I enjoy about Bujolds characters--they seem so real, you find yourself wanting to meet them.
Jin Sato was an interesting young character, though I enjoyed his spunky little sister more toward the end of the book. I found the whole "cryogenic suspension" business, with the buying and selling of contracts to keep people frozen, fascinating, and it was interesting to learn that those who'd be revived didn't often acclimate well in their new world/time. I would wish to be able to be frozen and return to life at at time when they'd found cures for many diseases and had some kind of rejuvenation process for old age so you could enjoy the new time you'd revived into. The whole idea of giving votes to the dead/frozen, however, was creepy,and I was happy to see that Miles thwarted the evil cryogenics company plan to take over his home world via cryo-corpse votes. The ending was nice and tidy, and it left the reader hopeful that Jin and his sister and mother had found a new father and a new home in the Barrayar consulate with a diplomat living there. Though Bujold mentions Miles wife and his children, we see little of them in this novel, which was one of my few disappointments with it, as I'd love to know about his home life and how he deals with his kids on a day to day basis. Still, it was a fast and satisfying read, and I sincerely hope that there's another Miles book on the horizon. A solid A for this science fiction novel that I'd recommend to anyone who has read the other Miles novels and who loves them as dearly as I do for not just their characters, but also the smart, witty prose and lightspeed plots that Bujold wields with ease.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Beautiful Libraries

It's not when you have access to them that you appreciate libraries fully, it's when, like this week, they close due to a huge snowstorm, and you find yourself staring longingly through the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of your favorite librarians and fellow bibliophiles that you truly appreciate the impact that libraries have on your life. Not that I would do any of that, of course. The Maple Valley Library should definitely be on the list of lovely libraries. I have been thankful for libraries my entire life.

Here's a tidbit on beautiful libraries from Shelf Awareness:
showcased the "Most Beautiful Public Libraries in the U.S.," observing
that "most roundups of beautiful libraries focus on what's inside. And
while we love vaulted ceilings and overflowing bookshelves as much as
the next guy, we'd argue that the facades are just as important. From
futuristic steel-and-glass structures to early American structures
steeped in design history, here are ten public libraries that prove that
free books and Internet access don't need to be the only reason you
visit these architectural gems."

Also, my favorite actress, the marvelous Emma Thompson, weighs in on books with this oh-so-true quote:

Books 'Turn Up in Your Life When You Most Need Them'

"I think books are like people, in the sense that they'll turn up in
your life when you most need them. After my father died, the book that
sort of saved my life was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel
One Hundred Years of Solitude. Because of that experience, I firmly
believe there are books whose greatness actually enables you to live, to
do something. And sometimes, human beings need story and narrative more
than they need nourishment and food."

--Actress Emma Thompson on choosing seven "books that made a difference"
for O magazine

Finally, I bought myself a copy of "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier for Thanksgiving, and I intend to stuff myself full of good food and good prose today, all day!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Killbox by Ann Aguirre/The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson

First, another great quote from Shelf Awareness:
"Even with all of the so-called new media out there, books still have
the potential to be the most powerful medium of them all. Complex ideas
are explored over hundreds of pages and over several days, giving the
ideas time to sink in and take root, changing a person. Being exposed to
an idea or concept through social media or an article just doesn't have
the same impact. Meeting authors who yield this power wisely is still a

--Don Allen, publications director, Busboys and Poets, Washington, D.C.

Killbox is the 4th book in Ann Aguirre's Sirantha Jax science fiction series, and though it contains her usual roller-coaster ride action and space adventure, it also ties up a lot of loose ends in Jax's life, readying us for what I can only assume is the final novel in the series.

Jax has the genetic mutation to navigate grimspace and get ships from place to place across the galaxy, and because she was concieved in grimspace, she is also able to heal herself of the side effects that damage most "jumpers" and make them eventually unable to jump anymore.
Killbox has Jax quitting her ambassadorial role and mentoring a young jumper, as well as spending time with her beloved March and creating a militia to keep ships and colonies from being attacked by pirates or the cannibalistic Morgut, creatures who see humanity as a tasty food source.
I found the pace of this novel measured and deliberate, yet still exciting. The characters are, as always, full-bodied and fascinating, and the love scenes enthralling...few people can write a modern bedroom scene as well as Ann Aguirre. I was glad to see Jax take control of her destiny in this novel, though I was a bit freaked out by the ending of the book, which leaves us not knowing if Jax will survive her attempt to reset the beacons of grimspace to thwart the Morgut. It was interesting to watch her use her new implants and scientific advances to actually hear what the Morgut say, and realize that they are sentient, though confused by the idea that their 'meat' doesn't want to be slaughtered due to our own sentience. Jax's support systems and friends all fall away at once, and Jax realizes that it all comes down to her and her special skills to save the universe. I was gratified to note that Jax's evil mafioso mother died a heroic death, and that she and March are on stable ground in their relationship. I will be awaiting the next installment eagerly, as now I have to know if Jax's plan works, and if she and Hit make it back alive. I'd give Killbox a solid A, and recommend it to all who've read the other Sirantha Jax novels.

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson is an interesting fictional take on the life of a servant in Shakespeares time, and on the origins of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
The protagonist, Elizabeth Miranda Persons, a young girl who has been forced into indentured servitude by the plague and persecution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth I, her namesake, is working for a mean and cruel old woman of the gentry when she takes a voyage from England to the Virginia colonies in the "new world" on a ship called the Sea Venture. Unfortunately, the 150 passenger vessel is wreaked off the coast of Bermuda, and Miranda is forced to cook and clean not only for the Mistress Horton, but also for the Admiral and the other sailors and shipwreaked folk, including William Strachey, who is actually William Shakespeare. Miranda and William strike up a friendship, and William uses their story to write The Tempest, while also nudging Miranda towards Thomas, the ships cook, who at first horrifies her because she's seen women raped and has nearly been raped herself. Miranda's recipes are added into each couple of chapters, which is fascinating, as she was working with fresh seafood and game animals, as well as tubers and herbs found in Bermuda. She's a good enough cook that she's able to teach Thomas the use of herbs and spices to add flavor to the food, and soon the two are in love and wed, with Miranda pregnant as they make their way to the colonies via a slapped together ship. Unfortunately, Thomas is killed by Native Americans, and Miranda is left with a choice of either marrying a man she doesn't love or moving back to England with William and starting up her own Inn and restaurant in one of Shakespeare's homes. She chooses the latter, and the author leaves us with a decent HEA to wrap things up. I found the history fascinating and the recipes authentic in this book, and though the plot dragged a bit in spots, overall it was a well done novel. I'd give it a B+, and recommend The Gentleman Poet to those interested in Shakespeare, history and historical food.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Namaah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey

First, a bit of business, I found this link to a lovely story on a local school librarian who is making a difference, and the article makes a good case for the importance of librarians in schools, at a time when librarians are being phased out of schools and our King County Library System.

Also, a bit from Kevin Bacon, who appears to be a smart guy (who knew?) as reported in the wonderful Shelf Awareness:

Noting actor Kevin Bacon's philosophy of reading--"You can sit around
and complain that Hollywood doesn't make any good movies. But you can
generate your own material. So I read books."--Word & Film
recommended a checklist of Bacon's movies "to find great reading

Now, about Namaah's Curse, the latest novel from the incredible imagination of Jacqueline Carey. I've read all of Carey's "Kushiel's" series, which were like some richly-scented chocolate dessert--they're impossible to resist and once you start reading them, no amount of will power can get you to stop. Also like chocolate, they're decadent and not to everyone's taste--they have lots of sexuality in them, and there's pain-as-pleasure attached to some of it, yet it's never gratuitous or slimy. Carey writes her sex scenes with true reverence and can feel the sincere passion, the glorying in the beauty of the human form, the sensuality and erotic joy of sexuality and orgasm pouring forth from each chapter. Yet Carey doesn't overindulge in sex scenes to the detriment of her stories. Her plots never lag, there's no lame dialogue or cliche'd euphemisms to make you cringe and wish she'd get back to the subject at hand. And her characters SHINE, brightly and beautifully, fully created and seeming to breathe right off the page. First and foremost, Carey is a resplendent storyteller of the Sheherazad school, the kind of author whose prose draws you in, engrosses you and doesn't let you go until the last word is spent.
I was so enthralled by the Kushiel's books that I was sad to see them end. However, Carey decided to start a new series with Moirin, a descendant of some of the characters from the Kushiels books, and place her 100 years later in time. Moirin has some of the powers of the Bear clan but is also a child of Namaah, so she's a sexual adept as well, though not a courtesan, as was Phaedra, the protagonist from the first series. We were introduced to Moirin in Namaah's Kiss, where she met up with a Chinese sage and his assistant Bao, and fell in love with Bao, reviving him with her spirit in the last part of the book. Namaah's Curse takes place in China and Mongolia, where Moirin must go to find Bao, her soul mate, and her adventures along the way take several interesting twists and turns. One of those turns is meeting fanatical Christians, and, as Moirin's people of Terre D'Ange view sex as a sacrament, you can imagine how ugly things get when a Christian cult leader tries to torture confessions out of Moirin, and force her to submit to patriarchal Christian dogma. Fortunately, she's rescued by a half D'Angeline boy, whom she gifts with his first sexual experience, helping him to gain Namaah's blessing. I daresay no one describes oral sex with as much heat as Carey, and if there is any through-line or theme to her books, it is that nothing is as healthy, healing and good for body and soul as a long roll in the hay with someone you love. But Carey also manages to add in chunks of history, in this case Asian history that fascinating and add to the stew of the story, making it more robust.
At any rate, I enjoyed this second book in the Namaah's series, and look forward to the third. I'd give it a solid A, and recommend Namaah's Curse to fantasy-loving adults with open minds and hearts who find Asian culture and history fascinating.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Glass Trilogy by Maria V Snyder and Sidejobs

Maria V Snyder is the author of the "Poison Study" series that I bought initially for the cover of the first book, but read with great enjoyment once I discovered the finely-wrought prose and fascinating characters inside it.
She did a spin off from that series with a character named Opal Cowan, a magician glassblower who could make glass animals that served as a kind of cell phone, and who could also drain the power from other magicians and encase it in diamonds.
In Storm Glass, we learned about Opal's family and her glass-making powers, as well as her frailty as a person. While she managed to help contain some seriously bad Daviian warpers in glass and save the day, she constantly whined and allowed others to tell her what to do and run roughshod over her own feelings. Even when her boyfriend changes souls with the warper who hurt her, she allows herself to be lulled into sleeping with the guy, though she knows something is 'wrong' with him. I found Opal a bit hard to take in the first novel, because she was so flawed, ignorant and immature, she made me want to slap her more than root for her. Yet I read the next book in the series, "Sea Glass" anyway, and was surprised at how determined and tenacious Opal had become. She spends a great deal of time in this book trying to find Ulrick, the man who exchanged bodies with Develn, the warper who tortured her twice and tried to kill her, and is now supposedly in love with her (that part strained my credulity). Meanwhile, Opals rather fickle affections have been bestowed on a "stormdancer" named Kade, who can magically suck the energy from violent weather and encase it in glass orbs created specially by Opal, until she teaches others to make the unbreakable orbs.Unfortunately, no one believes Opals story that her boyfriend has switched bodies, so she has to find both men and prove it, which she manages to do in the end. Spy Glass, the final book in the series, finds Opal at a loss because, in order to keep some hostiles from causing trouble, Opal had to drain their magic and her own into an orb. These nasty fellows managed to get Opals blood when they captured and tortured her (again), so now Opal, ever dogged in her pursuits, goes after the blood thieves to see if she can regain her messenger-glass making powers. While she's also more mature in this book, Opal is still somewhat niave and takes ridiculous risks without thinking it through. She does learn to defend herself from the marvelous Valek, a uber-spy character from the Poison Study series, but she still manages to get herself into horrible trouble with a cult on the coast who are enslaving people and using black diamonds and pearls to further their magical goals. Fortunately, Opal doesn't take things lying down, as she used to, so with her new backbone and training, she is able to help rout the bad guys (she even kills the man who enslaved her) and find her true love in the former Daviian Warper who tortured and nearly killed her. I know, it still strains credulity that she would throw over the stormdancer Kade for a scumbag who repeatedly hurt her, but he is now supposedly not addicted to blood magic anymore, has done time in a prison and reformed himself by doing everything he can to help Opal. I really don't think any amount of assistance and 'reform' would make me want to forgive someone who had tortured me physically and emotionally twice. But Opal seems to fall into bed with him rather quickly, and seems to believe he's now a good guy on the slightest evidence. Personally, I would have killed him at the first opportunity, but that's just me. I don't forgive that kind of suffering.
However, Opal marries Develn, and adopts two orphans, and things get wrapped up with a nice HEA bow at the end, which is satisfying to me as a reader. It's one of the things I appreciate about Maria V Snyder, her ability to bring her tales to a beautifully-finessed ending. Snyder's prose is, as always, sterling, and her plots have not an ounce of fat on them as they swim along like that Olympic swimmer Phelps--swiftly, cleanly and gracefully. But what I like best about Snyders stories is her ability to craft characters that fascinate and engage the reader because they seem so real and alive. I gather another "Study" book is going to be out soon, and I can hardly wait to pick it up and read of the further adventures of my favorite Snyder characters, Yelena and Valek. Meanwhile, I'd give the "Glass" series a B+ overall and an A- for the final book in the series, "Spy Glass." I'd recommend this series to any artistic teenager or adult who finds glass making and magic fascinating.
I've also just read Jim Butcher's "Side Jobs" a compendium of short stories about the wonderful wizard of Chicago, Harry Dresden. Let me be honest, I've had a tremendous crush on Harry since I first read about him years ago. I love that he's such a hero, but in such a smart-assed, fumbling and often messed up way. He's flawed, but his heart is in the right place, and he's smart enough to be able to use his faults to his advantage to capture or kill the bad guys. He's also a big softie when it comes to dealing with women, children and animals, like his huge Fu-dog Mouse, or his cat Mister. The thing that bothers me about the Dresden Files is that Harry gets beaten to a pulp and nearly killed in every single installment. And in the last full-length novel, Changes, Jim Butcher leaves us hanging as to whether Harry will live or die by shooting him on the last page of the book, which is just a low-down dirty trick, if you ask me. I was told that "Side Jobs" had a short story in it that takes place right after Harry is shot on his boat, so I assumed there would be some hint or answer in that text that would keep me going until the next Dresden Files book is published next year. But nooooo, Butcher gives us a whole story with the marvelous Karrin Murphy, beloved cop friend of Harrys, who can't believe he's dead, but doesn't try to find him during the run of the story, either. Dresden fans are left with a vague feeling that he 'might' still be alive because there has been no corpse recovered and buried, but other than Murphy's hope that he's still alive, we've got precious little to go on. This makes me want to smack Jim Butcher's fanny for teasing Dresden fans this way--its cruel, and I don't like it. Either tell us he's alive or tell us he's dead, but don't insinuate things in such a wimpy way that we don't know squat by the end of the tale. I believe even Harry Dresden himself would be pissed off at his fans being treated this way. That said, I really enjoyed the rest of the short stories in this tome, though I'd already read three of them in other anthologies. Even the first story which Butcher claims is his first attempt and therefore awful, is really a delight. It seems obvious to me, and I am sure to other Dresden File fans that Butcher has a great deal of writing talent, and it shines through no matter where it is deployed. I'd give this book an A, mainly because it's indispensable to those who know and love Harry Dresden. But I reserve the right to give the final story in the book a C for "nice try, but you didn't tell us what we want/need to know." I'd recommend "Side Jobs" to anyone who loves wizards and magic with an urban, gritty feel and a large dose of mystery.